Saturday, January 28, 2023

Book Review: Berserker's Planet

Book Review: 'Berserker's Planet' by Fred Saberhagen
2 / 5 Stars

'Berserker's Planet' (173 pp.) is DAW Book No. 147 and was published in April, 1975. The cover illustration is by Jack Gaughan.

This is one of a substantial body of novels and short stories that made up Saberhagen's very successful 'Berserkers' franchise, which began in 1967 with the eponymous novel. Additional books in the series were published well into the new century, with 'Rogue Berserker' released in 2005, just two years prior to Saberhagen's demise.

'Berserker Planet' consists of two narratives that eventually coalesce. In one narrative, a space ship, the Orion, whose passengers are three men and three women, all of them thrill-seekers in one sense or another, makes landfall on the planet Hunter. There the male passengers are to engage in hunting the native wildlife, an exercise by which they hope to inflate their machismo, and thus enjoy the favors of the women, who are to play the role both of cheerleaders and concubines. 

The space ship is piloted by the wealthy and very self-assured Oscar Schoenberg. Carlos Suomi, a business acquaintance of Schoenberg, is the one hunt participant who has misgivings about its purpose, a stance which does not elevate him in the eyes of Schoenberg.  

The other narrative deals with a uniquely brutal competition being held by the priestly caste of Hunter's mountaintop Holy City, Godsmountain. Sixty-four men, originating from the various districts of the planet, have been invited to participate in a tournament involving edged weapons. The one-on-one matches are to the death, and with each succeeding round, the combat arena moves closer to the summit of Godsmountain, where, the contestants are assured, the solitary victor will sit beside Thorun, the God of the Warriors, in a kind of Hunterian version of Valhalla.

The contestants, all fighting men with what could charitably be called limited educational backgrounds, eagerly risk death in the hopes of gaining their empyrean reward. Early in the tournament, the crew of the Orion arrives at the site and its passengers are intrigued, and excited, to witness the spectacle of men slicing, dicing, and bashing each other into oblivion. 

What the contestants, and the crew of the Orion, don't know is that a Berserker not only is residing on Hunter, but has plans to manipulate the parties to bring about the planet's subjugation. And after that, the galaxy awaits...........

'Berserker Planet' was not a particularly strong entry from Saberhagen, and I am comfortable with giving it a two-star Rating. 

Its construction suggests that Saberhagen may have taken two independent draft novels, or novelettes, and merged them to make a sellable novel. The forced fusing of the narratives of the tournament-to-the-death contest, and the adventures of the crew of the Orion, gives the book a strained character. Although Saberhagen imbues the myriad fight scenes with due intensity (the winner never is assured), and the final chapters feature some disturbing splatterpunk imagery, as a whole, 'Berserker Planet' lacks the quality that was apparent in the franchise's entries from the 1970s.

It's true that Saberhagen was an author who wrote to earn a living, and it's unreasonable to suppose that everything he produced would be exemplary. However, 'Berserker Planet' fails to do much that is novel or imaginative with the 'killer robot' concept, and I can't recommend it to anyone other than Saberhagen enthusiasts.

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